Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Well, praises be! It’s not exactly utopia yet, and I wouldn’t put it past Dubya to veer once again toward the messianic vision presented so forcibly by various neoconservatives, including people in his administration. But the quick turnaround last week on the timetable for turning Iraq over to actual Iraqis suggests at least the possibility that the administration has an inkling of how unpromising the situation on the ground is, and at least a residual capacity to respond to facts on the ground rather than seeking always to impose a rose-colored vision on the facts.

Skepticism is warranted, of course. There is still no acknowledgment from Washington that previous approaches (it would be almost fanciful to call it a strategy, in that it bears most of the marks of improvisation in the face of the fact that the rosy scenarios never developed and Ahmad Chalabi, the neocon favorite, never showed much evidence of assembling an actual following inside Iraq) were in any way flawed. And there’s also little acknowledgment that this is in fact a change from the original approach of creating instant democracy in a place that has never experienced it before. So Bush could start backsliding.

Nonetheless, the announcement that the United States intends to turn Iraq over to whatever semblance of an Iraqi government can be assembled by June marks a new and welcome phase of the “postwar” (or is that “War: Part Deux”?) policy. President Bush may still be committed to high-flown rhetoric and playground assurances that whatever the situation we will do whatever it takes to win (without ever vouchsafing to us or perhaps having a firm idea himself of what it would mean to win). But facts are facts, attacks are attacks, dead Americans don’t come back to life, and there are some indications that certain elements of the military are in all but open revolt. All this suggests that a long-term occupation by the United States is not in the best interest of the United States.

ELECTORAL CALCULATIONS?

It could be, naturally, that speeding up the timetable for a turnover to an Iraqi governing body – and, one may hope, an accelerated withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, though that hasn’t yet been promised – is in part a maneuver related to U.S. electoral politics. Several of the people I talked to echoed what Charles Peña of the Cato Institute said to me last week, as the new policy was still germinating. “Pardon me if I sound like an inside-the-Beltway cynic, but the polls are not exactly moving in Bush’s favor, and this is a town that lives for politics,” he told me.

True enough. There is a presidential election scheduled in less than a year, after all, and a continuing military occupation featuring limited progress, no discernible progress, or even widely perceived deterioration in the security situation, and body bags coming home is seldom conducive to an incumbent’s reelection chances. “If we don’t move faster toward Iraqi sovereignty,” Mr. Peña told me, “the situation might spin completely out of US control and it really will be a quagmire.”

Peña thinks that it wouldn’t be that difficult, even with all that talk about a model democracy on the record, to scale back expectations in a way that would make a reduced US commitment less embarrassing than it might seem. The US could let a new Iraqi authority know, in no uncertain terms, that if evidence is found that a new regime is harboring or supporting al-Qaida or other terrorists that might attack the United States (or even some of its interests, although the definition of US interests is by nature somewhat more flexible than some of us would prefer), or seeking nasty weapons, that it will be back in force.

Even if the new Iraq finds itself in the throes of conflict or something resembling civil war, those might not be promises that will be all that difficult to keep. It’s unlikely that a new Iraqi government would want to support al Qaida (unless things go very badly and in ways that now seem unlikely). And to a great extent it is the very presence of US troops that have made Iraq a terrorist magnet. Of course border control can be an iffy thing, and terrorists might still flock to Iraq – if they have been; the evidence suggesting the current violence might be foreign-driven rather than mostly Iraqi-driven is sketchy and not exactly reliable, and I suspect nobody knows for sure. But what the US could reasonably expect from a new Iraqi ruling class is that it not support terrorists, not that it control them completely.

TRADING DREAMS FOR REALISM?

The new timetable has the advantage of not allowing an image of the perfect to be the enemy of the achievable. From the standpoint of the ideal of establishing a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq to be a beacon for the rest of the region, it might have been nice to have a constitution written first, then a completely open election monitored by international observers. But that could have taken years – and it might not be a realistic goal for Iraq anyway.

People generally learn responsibility by taking responsibility, and this is no less true in Iraq than anywhere. If our goal is Iraq for the Iraqis (rather than a forward base for further military operations and heavy US influence), the best course is to turn over responsibility as quickly as possible. It is heartening to see that the administration, at least for the time being and for whatever reasons, now seems to agree.

One must be realistic here as well. The process of wresting self-determination from the ashes of the abhorrent Saddam Hussein regime could be painful and full of false starts. Conflict is likely, and the Iraqis could come up with an arrangement that is less than ideal.

NO EASY TASK

Marina Ottaway, a senior associate in the Democracy and the Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me she doesn’t see any figure comparable to Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan (not that Karzai has much effective control outside Kabul, but at least he isn’t drastically hated and has a modicum of respect in most of the country). So coming up with a credible leader, before or after a written constitution, might be an extremely difficult task.

Ms. Ottaway also notes that some factions in Iraq might not be all that eager for a constitution that brings in genuinely representative government. The Kurds, who have had some experience with semi-autonomous rule even under Saddam, seem to be adjusting with the least friction to the post-Saddam environment. But in terms of raw numbers, they are probably over-represented in the Iraqi Governing Council.

The Shiites, mostly in the southern-central region, on the other hand, have mostly been biding their time and behaving, in part because with about 65 percent of the country’s population, they expect to have a commanding position once governance is based on numbers. So they might start to get restive if that time is put off too long to suit them.

From a theoretical point of view, of course, it’s easy to say that the best approach in Iraq would be something resembling a federalist system, with a relatively weak central government and relative autonomy for local regions. The Iraqis do have some experience, although not understood in those western-sounding terms, with a roughly similar system, in that the Ottoman rulers generally left tribal leaders more or less to their own devices so long as they paid taxes and didn’t revolt openly. But Saddam Hussein installed a system that, while it paid some attention to local sensitivities, was a fairly centralized form of rule – and one from which the Sunnis in the “triangle" surrounding his home city of Tikrit benefited disproportionately. Whether any Iraqi faction – particularly the majority Shiites – would be able to envision or trust a relatively decentralized regime is questionable.

MORE EUROPEAN INVOLVEMENT

It might be too late now for the suggestion I got from Robert Hunter. Now a senior adviser to RAND in Washington, he was the US ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998. Not surprisingly, he suggested a more Eurocentric approach. Once the US turned more authority to the Iraqis and to some extent shed the image of the arrogant unilateralist, he suggested (I’m paraphrasing so blame me if it’s clumsily or provocatively put) the Europeans might be willing to lend more help in the reconstruction process.

His idea – again proffered before the new US policy was announced – was to “let the Europeans write the next U.N. resolution, make Paul Bremer the UN representative, and make it a NATO operation.” Come to think of it, that still might be doable, but it seems unlikely the Bush administration would go for it.

On the other hand, once an interim Iraqi government is in place, some Europeans might be almost eager to do business – including oil and reconstruction business – with the new rulers in Baghdad. So while an outright NATO option seems unlikely, it is quite possible that Europeans could become involved relatively soon.

EVEN A SUPERPOWER

The main thing to understand in all of this is that there are some things even a sole superpower cannot accomplish realistically. Governing a country with an ancient history, stubborn ethnic and religious divisions and a recent history of vicious dictatorship is turning out to be one of them (not that it is not imaginable, but it would require even more resources than the $87 billion many Americans already find outrageous, a longer-term commitment, and – quite unlikely – American administrators fluent in Arabic and deeply conversant with the region’s long and twisted history and current sensitivities).

It might be embarrassing to some, and to those who always envisioned the Iraqi adventure as a way to establish a base in the Middle East rather than an exercise in pending self-rule it will be extremely disappointing. But a withdrawal from Iraq and a turnover to Iraqis really is the best course, and as quickly as possible. In some ways that is much more consonant than the notion of trying to impose democracy from the outside through a combination of paternalism and brute force.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).